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Wenner-Gren Grantee in the News
Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie is the Curator and Head of Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is a former Post-Ph.D. Research Grantee who was also awarded a Professional Development Grant (now known as the Wadsworth International Fellowship) to pursue a doctorate in physical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, CA, under supervision of Dr.Tim D. White. His recent findings are to be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Below is the press release just released by PNAS announcing his discovery and the implications of the findings for our understanding of Human Evolution.
HUMAN-LIKE WALKING IS ANCIENT: “Lucy’s” Forebears were Advanced Upright-Walkers.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:
An international team of scientists conducting field research in the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region has announced the discovery of a 3.6 million-year-old partial skeleton of “Lucy’s” species, Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy” is 3.2 million years old). This discovery and results from the initial analysis will be published this week in the Early Online Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States of America. The first author and team leader Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, Curator and Head of Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said “as a result of this discovery, we can now confidently say that “Lucy” and her relatives were as proficient as ourselves walking on two legs. Obligate bipedality has deeper roots.”
The new partial skeleton (KSD-VP-1/1), which the authors have nicknamed “Kadanuumuu” (kah-dah-nuu-muu), generates new information on the locomotion, shoulder girdle morphology, and shape of the rib cage in our early ancestors, particularly in “Lucy’s” species, Australopithecus afarensis. “Kadanuumuu” means “big man” in the Afar language and reflects its large size. One of the co-authors, Kent State University Professor of Anthropology Dr. C. Owen Lovejoy, described the new partial skeleton as “a truly special find in understanding the early evolution of humans. "
Background to the Discovery:
The best-known direct early human ancestor is Australopithecus afarensis. The only partial skeleton assigned to this species, until now, has been “Lucy”, a female individual recovered from Hadar, in Ethiopia’s Afar Triangle in 1974, and dated to 3.2 million years ago. “Lucy” was an exceptionally small female (only about 3 1⁄2 feet tall), but she was the only partial skeleton of her age ever found. Many interpreted her small frame as being incompletely adapted to upright walking.
The new Woranso-Mille specimen (KSD-VP-1/1) being reported here is only the second partial skeleton ever recovered and it is a large male (about 5 to 5 ½ feet tall). It is also now the oldest Australopithecus afarensis skeleton yet found and among the largest individuals of the species. It not only preserves most of the same skeletal parts that “Lucy” does, but also others never previously known, including a nearly complete shoulder blade and a significant portion of the rib cage. These have generated many surprises and shed major light on previously unknown skeletal features of Australopithecus afarensis, thereby advancing our knowledge of the paleobiology of this species and its descendants.
Discovery of KSD-VP-1/1 (“Kadanuumuu”):
The Woranso-Mille project has been conducting field research in the central Afar region of Ethiopia since 2004. The project has collected more than 4500 fossil specimens of various mammalian species. These include about 95 fossil hominid specimens dating back to 3.8 million years ago.
On February 10, 2005, Alemayehu Asfaw found the first element of KSD-VP-1/1, a fragment of the lower arm bone (ulna), at a locality known as Korsi Dora. The specimen was exposed on the surface and further investigation resulted in the recovery of more elements. The surface distribution of the specimens indicated that excavation was necessary. Continued excavation between 2005 and 2008 produced more skeletal elements including an upper arm (humerus), a collarbone (clavicle), bones of the neck (cervical vertebra), a shoulder blade (scapula), ribs, pelvis, sacrum, a thighbone (femur), and a shinbone (tibia). Most of the specimens were buried under 1.5 meter thick clay and silt. All of this was removed before the specimens could be recovered. Unfortunately, none of the cranial or dental parts were recovered. Dr. Haile-Selassie explained that extraction of the skeletal elements from the ground took five years of excavation.
The specimen was found in the Woranso-Mille Paleontological Project study area located in the central Afar region of Ethiopia about 210 air miles (336 Kms) northeast of the capital Addis Ababa and 30 air miles (48 Kms) north of Hadar (“Lucy’s” site). Korsi Dora is the local name for the area where KSD-VP-1/1 was found. This area is inhabited by the Afar people who are semi-nomadic.
Geology and Age Determination:
A. Geochronology and stratigraphy
KSD-VP-1/1 was recovered from mudstone at the base of an exposure of upward coarsening claystone, siltstone and sandstone about one meter thick. A volcanic tuff about 2.6 meters below the specimen has been dated by the 40Ar/39Ar (“Argon-Argon”) method, yielding an age of 3.60 ± 0.03 Ma.
B. Paleomagnetic Analysis
Paleomagnetic analysis was conducted to further refine the specimen’s age, since it was found above the dated tuff. Extensive samples were taken from material above the specimen. All exhibited what is known as normal “remanence” (the directionality of the Earth’s magnetic poles has shifted back and forth in cycles for much of its history). This tells us that the bottom of the deposits on which the specimen rested is just above the “Gauss/Gilbert paleomagnetic transition,” indicating an age of between 3.6 and 3.3 million years ago. Using sedimentation rates calculated for other parts of the study area, KSD-VP-1/1, which was found 2.6 meters above the dated tuff, has a most probable age of 3.58 million years.
Significance of the Discovery:
- “Lucy” was an exceptionally small female (only about 3 ½ feet tall), but she was the only partial skeleton of her age. “Kadanuumuu” is a much larger male (5 to 5 ½ feet tall), and not only preserves most of the same skeletal parts that “Lucy” does, but also some never previously known, including a nearly complete shoulder blade and a significant portion of the rib cage. These have generated many surprises.
- Many anthropologists mistook some features of “Lucy’s” small frame to indicate that she was not fully adapted to upright walking. “Kadanuumuu” shows this was incorrect. His much larger frame exhibits characters very similar to those of modern humans in his pelvis, thigh, and shinbones.
- In fact, “Kadanuumuu’s” legs were also surprisingly long—almost as long compared to the size of his arms as are those of modern humans. Elongating our legs was previously thought to be a pivotal change later in human evolution, and most observers thought “Lucy’s” legs were very short. However, her legs were short because of her very small size. “Kadanuumuu’s” legs demonstrate that if “Lucy’s” frame had been as large as his, her legs would also have been almost as long as ours. Speculation as to why our legs got longer over time has ranged from helping dissipate body heat to reducing the energy needed to walk long distances (claimed by some to be an adaptation for “persistence hunting”). However, the latter now cannot be correct because “Kadanuumuu” lived nearly one million years before the first stone tools were ever made (he is 400,000 years older than “Lucy”).
- “Kadanuumuu’s” shoulder was also a major discovery. It shows that our ancestor’s shoulder blade and rib cage were much more similar to those of modern humans than has been previously thought. Most authorities, until now, presumed that our ancestors’ shoulders were more like those of chimpanzees. “Kadanuumuu” shows that this is not the case. Along with specimens from an even older ancestor, Ardipithecus ramidus or Ardi (See the October 2, 2009 special issue of Science), this confirms that our shoulder has changed only slightly since the days of “Lucy” and “Kadanuumuu”. This is very surprising, because his shoulders differ much from those of chimpanzees than they do from those of gorillas, despite the fact that chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. This tells us that chimpanzees have evolved a great deal since we shared a last common ancestor with them, and confirms conclusions made last year on the basis of the Ardi skeleton.
- Some anthropologists have recently claimed that much more recent specimens from South Africa (only about 2 million years old) exhibited traits that suggested that our ancestors completed their adaptation to upright walking more recently. “Kadanuumuu” shows that the traits these anthropologists were studying are instead probably just a product of very small body size. “Kadanuumuu” has a much more substantial, robust pelvis than “Lucy”—almost certainly because he was a much larger male. Moreover, his pelvis and lower limb indicate that he was highly accomplished at upright walking, and fully capable of making footprints same as the famous Laetoli footprints found in Tanzania in 1979. The advanced adaptations present in “Kadanuumuu’s” pelvis and lower limb pushes back modern striding gait to well before 3.6 million years. Dr. Lovejoy added that “the skeleton establishes, once and for all, just how ancient upright walking is in our family heritage.”
The Woranso-Mille Project:
The Woranso-Mille Paleontological project conducts field and laboratory work in Ethiopia each year. This project, initiated in 2004, is led by Ethiopian paleoanthropologist Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Dr. Bruce Latimer of Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. Participants include scientists from Ethiopia, the United States, France, and Sweden, specializing in various subdisciplines of geology and paleontology. The project has also been actively training graduate and undergraduate students from both Ethiopia and the United States and continues to do so.
The Woranso-Mille project will continue conducting its annual field and laboratory work in the study area and recover more fossils of early hominids and associated vertebrates.
Publication of results from these discoveries will continue as soon as their detailed analysis is completed.
The project will make sure that participation of Ethiopian scholars in the field of paleoanthropology rises by training more Ethiopian students in collaboration with the Paleoanthropology Program of the Addis Ababa University.
The Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) annually issues fieldwork research permit to the Woranso-Mille project. The National Museum of Ethiopia and the Directorate of Collections, Curation, and Laboratory Services of ARCCH provided laboratory research facility and fossil storage space. Field and laboratory research conducted by the Woranso-Mille project are supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (Physical Anthropology program), The Leakey Foundation, The National Geographic Society, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for fieldwork and Kent State University for laboratory research.